To quote Nelson Muntz, “I can think of two things wrong with that title.”
The notion of an unfilmable novel is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. You can film anything. You might film it badly, but you can film it. David Cronenberg proved that in 1991 when he adapted William S. Burrough’s novel Naked Lunch for the big screen. Good or bad doesn’t quite enter into it – to dive into Burroughs is to experience madness in its purest form – but if anything could defy adaptation, that book would be it. And if any director could find a way to crack its code, it would be Cronenberg. Hit the jump for my review of Naked Lunch on Blu-ray.
His secret lay in bringing Burrough’s own life into the text, making him the ostensible hero. Bill Lee (Peter Weller) makes a living as an exterminator while talking writing with his hep cat buddies down at the coffee shop. Then his wife (Judy Davis) starts injecting his bug powder from work and suddenly the Weird Shit comes scuttling out of the walls. Lee finds himself caught in the machinations of talking bugs, talking anuses, bugs with talking anuses, typewriters that turn into bugs with talking anuses and for some inexplicable reason, Roy Scheider.
So yeah, not exactly popcorn entertainment. And its biggest failings come when Cronenberg indulges in strangeness for its own sake. The narrative hardly moves, and when it does, we have absolutely no idea what’s going on. That becomes disconcerting at times, and even exasperating as the hallucinogenic rabbit hole starts feeding on itself. That’s partially by design (Cronenberg is nothing if not an intellectual provocateur), but it still demands more indulgence from us than perhaps it should.
Its effectiveness lies in conveying a particular mood and the way that mood both informs and sabotages the hero’s creative process. Naked Lunch feasts on extreme paranoia: the belief that you’re being controlled by sinister alien forces whose agenda may lie beyond your ability to comprehend. Mix that with a touch of writer’s block and present it to an author (or an author stand-in) as the only means of viable expression. Suddenly what started out as an art house wank fest turns into a surprisingly insightful look into Burrough’s mind… or at least what his mind might have been.
Little things like plot and narrative get in the way of that meditation. Instead, Naked Lunch luxuriates in Lee’s mindset, inviting us to share his madness and speculate idly on what he would be without it. The screenplay captures a great deal of Burroughs’ trippy dialogue, ensuring that we see glimpses of the brain that started all this insanity amid… well, amid all the insanity.
Certainly, it’s not for everyone. One cannot simply pop it in to unwind one night, not unless you enjoy extended feelings of confused bafflement and/or straight-up nightmare material. But in its one weird way, it comes closer to Burroughs than anyone could hope, and multiple viewings reward those inclined towards his one-of-a-kind worldview. Nobody but Cronenberg could have done it, and while I confess I prefer the director’s more accessible films, I’m infinitely glad he can explore strange boundaries of the medium like this one.
As usual, Criterion has put together a stellar package… despite copying a great deal from the older DVD version. The film itself looks gorgeous, though the 2-track audio transfer may throw those looking for a 5- or 7-channel sound experience. Extra features include a 1992 British doc about the film (with some tasty behind-the-scenes shots), an “effects essay” containing stills and artwork, a collection of promotional material, audio commentary from Weller and Cronenberg, a series of photos of Burroughs taken by Allen Ginsberg, and an audio recording of Burroughs himself reading excerpts from his book. The last two are the most interesting, of course, but all of them are present on the Criterion DVD of the film, so double-dipping probably isn’t necessary. If you don’t have it yet, then the Blu-ray makes a stylish way to add one of the strangest films of modern times to your collection.